Orchestra takes audiences back to 20s

By Connor Yearsley

Saturday night, the Waco Symphony Orchestra will perform its second concert of the year, entitled “Paris of the Roaring Twenties.”

The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Waco Hall.

Stephen Heyde, music director and conductor of the Waco Symphony Orchestra, said the program will hearken back to a time and place that was unique and perhaps unparalleled in cultural history.

“It was just a really, really vibrant scene,” Heyde said of Paris in the 1920’s.

The scene included painters like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, all-around entertainers like Josephine Baker, writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound and musicians like Cole Porter, to name a few.

It also included composers like Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud (pronounced mee-yo), whose work will be featured on the program.

The concert will begin with French composer Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro.”

“It’s certainly one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire,” Heyde said.

Heyde said he described the piece as sensuous, hypnotic and idiomatic of the time.

Boléro centers on a 16-measure main melody that gets passed around from instrument to instrument.

Ravel once asked, “Don’t you think that has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”

“He [Ravel] wanted to see what he could do where the only contrast is with orchestration and crescendo, and he succeeded brilliantly,” Heyde said.

Ravel was heavily influenced by Spanish music, having been born near the Spanish border. Boléro was inspired by the Spanish dance of the same name. It was originally written as a ballet, but the orchestral work is usually performed on its own now, without the choreography.

Historically, tempo has been a point of contention with the piece, with many conductors wanting to take it faster than Ravel intended. Heyde said the piece is marked at 72 beats per minute and that’s what he tries to stick to.

“It’s hard to take it much slower,” he said, since the soloists are forced to go long periods without breathing. He also said the piece, which is in 3/4 time (three beats per measure), tends to want to slow down.

Seth McConnell, principal percussionist for the Waco Symphony, has the most repetitive part in the piece. The 2-measure, 24-note snare drum pattern is repeated for the entirety of the piece, which usually lasts between 14 and 17 minutes depending on tempo.

McConnell said keeping focused is difficult, although the part is much more physically exhausting than mentally exhausting. He said having to start really soft and gradually crescendo to really loud by the end also makes it a challenge.
“I’m keeping the style. I’m trying to just continually keep that phrase going the way I want to,” he said.

Heyde said the piece presents its challenges.

“The biggest challenges are in the solos,” he said. “They’re so exposed.”

He also said the trombone part is written quite high in the instrument’s range and is challenging even for some of the most experienced trombonists.

Heyde said the orchestra has a surprise for the audience with Boléro.

The concert will continue with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 version of the “Firebird Suite.”

Heyde said he remembers the “Firebird Suite” as one of the first pieces to captivate him and draw him to classical music as a kid.

The suite is Russian impressionistic music based on the Russian folk legend that tells the story of Prince Ivan, the Firebird and the evil King Katschei. It was also written as a ballet.

The 1919 version is a scaled-back, re-orchestrated version of the 1910 and 1911 versions, which Heyde said were huge in scale. Orchestras couldn’t afford to perform the original versions after the economic hardships of World War 1, so Stravinsky rewrote it.

The 1919 version is featured on Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” and is one of the most frequently played pieces in the repertoire.

Heyde said the piece is exciting, sensuous and colorful and described it as the most serious and most challenging piece on the program.

“I’ve done the ‘Firebird’ a number of times. I just admire the writing,” he said.

McConnell, who plays xylophone and crash cymbals on the piece, said he’s looking forward to the “Firebird Suite” the most.

“The ‘Firebird’ is just so contrasting to itself even,” he said. “It’s an entity on its own.”

The program will conclude with French composer Darius Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit.”

Heyde said the name of the piece, which translates to “The Ox on the Roof,” is in keeping with the surreal nature of the piece.

Heyde described the piece as charming, repetitive, vaudevillian and dance hall-like. The piece was inspired heavily by South American rhythms and melodies, particularly those of Brazil.

Milhaud also wrote the piece to go along with a Charlie Chaplin silent film, but he never specified which one. The orchestra will be playing along to a Chaplin film of Heyde’s choosing.

“It’s just background music,” Heyde said. “Sometimes it will hit with the action and sometimes it won’t.”

All three pieces on the program were premiered in Paris, but Heyde said all three have distinctly different influences. “I think that’s what Paris did. It was a cosmopolitan center, brought together many nationalities,” he said.

Both Heyde and McConnell said they are excited for the program.

“This program is very percussion-heavy,” McConnell said. “So far this season, I would say this is the most exciting for us [percussionists].”

The program will also feature the symphony’s presentation of the Belles and Brass, young women and men who have undergone classes in etiquette and formal dancing and will be making a symbolic transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Heyde said the concert will see people who aren’t regular concert-goers as a result and wants to show the orchestra’s versatility.

“I want something that would be entertaining as well as artistic,” Heyde said.

“It’s not an intellectual program,” he said. “It’s a fun program.”

Dress is up to the audience members. The Speight Parking Facility is available for the concert.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.wacosymphony.com or at the door, depending on availability.